Why repression in Zimbabwe worries South Africa

How much South Africa uses its leverage over its neighbour could prove crucial to the stability of the region. 

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South Africa’s government is continuing to try to calm the ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe, as discontent rises over its neighbour's stagnant economy and runaway inflation. South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa will send more envoys to Zimbabwe to meet representatives of the governing Zanu-PF party and the opposition "within days," he said this week. A previous South African delegation was widely criticised for not meeting opponents of the Zimbabwean government.

Zimbabwe has suffered economic and political strife for years. A weak economy and harsh repression of dissent has pushed anything up to five million Zimbabweans (exact figures are difficult to come by due to the extent of unofficial immigration) into South Africa as economic migrants or refugees, making stability in the country a priority for Pretoria. Inflation in Zimbabwe is officially running at 800 per cent and there are frequent power cuts lasting up to 18 hours a day and an ongoing water shortage.

"The unfolding political crisis in Zimbabwe constitutes a clear and present danger not just to the peace and people of Zimbabwe but to the region's peace and security," said Fadzayi Mahere, a spokesperson for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. "The need to broker dialogue and an urgent political settlement could not be more urgent."

Expectations that President Emmerson Mnangagwa pushing out geriatric dictator Robert Mugabe in November 2017 would lead to reform have proven largely unfulfilled, said Steven Gruzd, head of the African governance and diplomacy programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, a Johannesburg think tank. “There were early hopes that Mnangagwa could make Zimbabwe open for business, but that faith has largely dissipated.”

[see also: Robert Mugabe: How Zimbabwe’s liberator became its oppressor]

“When Mnangagwa came to power he was making the right noises [about reform], but now there is no confidence left,” Darren Bergman, South Africa’s shadow minister for international relations, told the New Statesman: “Any collapse on their side is felt in South Africa.”

South Africa’s close relations with Zimbabwe includes ideological kinship between South Africa’s ruling African National Congress and Zanu-PF, dating back to when both parties were fighting to free their countries from white minority rule, meaning that the Rainbow Nation has significant political influence over its neighbour. In addition, South Africa has strong economic leverage over Zimbabwe, accounting for over a third of its imports and supplying much of its electricity.

[see also: Do South Africa and Zimbabwe’s new leaders represent a moment of hope?]

The porous border between the two countries has meant that Ramaphosa has come under increasing pressure to use his country’s influence to stem the flow of migrants from the north. “Uncontrolled migration from Zimbabwe to South Africa is not something the under-pressure South African government wants, or can afford to continue," said Knox Chitiyo, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a think tank.

“South Africa really should step in a more forceful way. Our future depends on Zimbabwe’s future. We can’t afford to ignore what is going on there as we have for many years,” added Gruzd. But the Zimbabwean opposition is distrustful of mediation from the ANC due to its historical closeness to Zanu-PF: “Because of the ANC’s loyalties to Zanu-PF, [the South African delegation] is just putting a Band-Aid on a really big wound,” Bergman said.

The Zimbabwean government cracked down hard on protests this summer against corruption and economic stagnation. The journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, whose reporting about corruption led to the firing of a minister accused of improperly awarding healthcare contracts worth millions of dollars, was freed this week (2 September) on bail after spending six weeks in prison. He is reportedly showing symptoms of Covid-19. Opposition MPs and the author Tsitsi Dangarembga, a Booker prize nominee, have also been arrested during the crackdown.

[see also: Amid protest and unrest, Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa resorts to old tactics]

But repression is no substitute for reforms and tackling corruption. The slow-moving crisis in Zimbabwe shows no signs of abating. How far South Africa chooses to exercise its economic and political leverage over its neighbour could ultimately prove crucial to the region's stability.

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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